A Brief History Of… The Disposable Paper Cup

Like the origins of the wheel or of fire, the precise story of how the humble paper cup came to be will never be known for sure.

There is documented evidence of its earliest use in Imperial China where paper was invented around 2nd century BC. Known as chih pei, paper cups were used for serving tea, a beverage that is also reputed to have been invented in Imperial China. However, the origins of the “modern” disposal paper cup can be more clearly traced to the start of the 20th century when it was used for serving water.

The story of the disposable paper cup had its beginnings in the need to address public health concerns arising from the unsafe methods used to consume water (and not coffee, as one may have been inclined to guess) in 19th century Europe. It all began with the temperance movement, a mass initiative against the rampant consumption of alcoholic beverages. To promote abstinence, public water pumps were set up to provide people with drinking water and hence an alternative to saloon alcohol. But, although the water that was pumped was itself clean, the metal cups — the so-called communal cups (the “tin dippers”) — used to drink the water posed a health hazard. The communal cups were shared by all and were never cleaned making them a sure-shot source of bacterial infections.

Communal drinking cups (the “tin dippers”) were a common practice in late 19th century public fountains.
Communal drinking cups (the “tin dippers”) were a common practice in late 19th century public fountains. Image Source: pg. 49, Journal of the New England Waterworks Association, Vol. 120
Communal cups were the source of much waterborne disease transmission.
Communal cups were the source of much waterborne disease transmission. Image courtesy of Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College
Drawing by Lawrence W. Luellen, from his patent application. US Patent 1032557
The ‘Health Kup’ Image courtesy of Hugh Moore Dixie Cup Collection, Special Collections and College Archives, Skillman Library, Lafayette College

Luellen teamed up with Hugh Moore to form the American Water Supply Company of New England to market a water-vending machine they had developed. The machine used disposable cups. Together they launched an advertising campaign to educate the masses about the health benefits of disposable paper cups and sell their machines. The company they formed went through several iterations: It was renamed the Public Cup Vendor Company, later changed to the Individual Drinking Cup Company of New York, then again to Health Kups, and finally, and more famously, to the Dixie Cup Company in 1943.

The public’s initial tepid response to paper cups was spurred by the sad events of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world. It was a wake-up call for people and, all of a sudden, a healthy fear of disease-causing germs created huge interest in disposable paper cups. The rest, as they say, was history.

Over time, the disposable paper cup evolved from being a mere hygienic solution to an object of everyday convenience. Today, millions of these cups are sold daily for consuming hot and cold beverages and food items — from water and coffee/tea to ice creams and soups; whether you are on the go or seated at home or at a fast-food restaurant. Disposable paper cups have become ubiquitous in places such as offices, fast-food eateries, and large events (sporting venues, concerts and festivals). After disposal, they can be recycled for other uses or for making paper cups in certain instances.

A Brief Timeline of the Disposable Paper Cup:

· In 1907, Lawrence W. Luellen, a Boston, Massachusetts-based lawyer and inventor, invented a disposable paper cup.

· In 1909, Kansas became the first U.S. state to ban communal cups (the “tin dippers”) in public places thanks to a spirited campaign by physician and public health reformer Samuel Jay Crumbine. The campaign helped spur sales of paper cups.

· In 1910, the Individual Drinking Cup Company of New York was formed by Hugh Moore and Lawrence W. Luellen.

· In 1912, Lawrence W. Luellen’s disposable paper cup is granted a US patent 1032557.

· In 1919, the Health Kup was renamed the Dixie Cup. Hugh Moore had sought and was given permission by doll-maker Alfred Schindler to borrow the name from Schindler’s Dixie Doll Company with whom they shared manufacturing space.

· In 1933, Sydney R. Koons of Cleveland, Ohio filed a patent application for a handle to attach to paper cups. US patent 2029429.

· In 1936, Walter W. Cecil of Harrison, Arkansas invented a paper cup that came with handles. US patent 2102510.

· In 1936, Leo John Hulseman of South Dakota founded the Paper Container Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois which was later renamed the Solo Cup Company. He created the “Solo Cup”, a paper cone.

· In 1943, the company founded by Lullen and Moore was officially renamed the Dixie Cup Company.

· In the 1950s, the Solo Cup Company introduced 2-piece wax-lined cups for serving cold beverages.

· In 1963, Laszlo Büch (Leslie Buck), a Czech immigrant from Khust, Czechoslovakia (but today located in Ukraine), designed the iconic Anthora cup (he mispronounced the Greek word “amphora” because of his native Eastern European accent) for the Sherri Cup Company of Connecticut. Its appealing design and iconic words “We Are Happy to Serve You” written across the cup became a fixture of everyday life in New York City.

· In 1987, Howard Shultz of Starbucks Coffee chose to use disposable to-go cups made of paper rather than foam in his cafés.

· In 2006, British inventor and entrepreneur Martin Myerscough invented the world’s first fully recyclable paper cup. This was achieved by gluing the thin plastic liner in so lightly that it easily separates from the paper in the recycling process.

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